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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Review: Beat Saber (PSVR)

I usually have a rule about finishing a game before I write a review, but I'll make an exception for Beat Saber. The game's been around for a while, since VR became available commercially, and had never gone on sale, but since we had a rainy November, December, and January, I bought it at full price and was surprised at how much we played it.

It helps that there's a very gentle learning curve, and then the difficulty ramps up quickly in campaign mode. But all the songs are unlocked right at the beginning, which means you can switch to party or solo mode and play them without pressure, setting difficulties to whatever you want.

The PSVR version seems no different than the Oculus Quest version, though the presence of wires on the headset proper sometimes interfere with your flailing around. The songs themselves aren't very good, and the DLC songs don't feature any artists I'd ever heard of. But other than that, there's very little to complain about for this game --- I never got motion-sick, and it is amusing to see the kids pick it up and do well. Some of the other songs can give you a pretty tough workout --- so much so that the headset might be drenched with sweat by the end of a heavy session, which is great when it's raining outside.


Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: Words on the Move

After reading Bill Bryson's lackluster book about English, I reflected that John McWhorter's audible series about human language was still by far the most memorable and interesting lecture series I heard last year, so I checked out his book Words on the Move from the library in hardback form. The book did not disappoint.

One thing that his lecture series touched on was that people don't really enjoy Shakespeare, and in a section of this book, he discusses why: many of the words used in Elizabethan times have drifted so far from their original meanings that their use is incomprehensible when presented in speech without prior study and preparation. Ever the pragmatist, McWhorter proposes that we present Shakespeare in translated versions, translating Elizabethan vocabulary into their modern equivalents. The examples he provides are compelling. In a further illustration of similar effects in modern times, he points to Moby Dick's use of certain words (e.g., "wonderful", "pitiful", and "earnest") that have drifted so far that we could never use them in the same way today. "Fantastic" is another word that has also similarly drifted.

The mechanics of why that drift happens and how it happens is similar to the story of telephone: each generation of new learners of the language puts their own twist on the enunciation, and eventually vulnerable syllables and sound drop off and we go from pronouncing "mate" like "mahtee" to "mayte". Entire categories of meaning can also shift, like "meat" used to mean "food", and "wort" usesd to mean "vegetables". Each of those words became more specific to a category, and another word moved in for the generalized meaning.

Upon reflection, this is one of those books where I should have bought the Kindle version. There are too many examples for me to retain, and it's worth reading multiple times. Recommended.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Review: Nimona

I clicked through the sample of Nimona, and found myself enjoying it enough to keep reading, so I checked it out of the library and read it in a couple of hours. The art is simple, as is the story, so what keeps you going are the characters, their interaction with each other, and the plot, which foreshadows a big reveal. The plot revolves around Nimona, a little girl who shows up to apply for the job of being a Villain's sidekick. Of course, she's not what she seems and her presence serves to throw the balance off everyone in the kingdom.

Unfortunately, the reveal never really solves the mystery,  though the climax of the story works and we get an interesting ending that still somehow fails to satisfy. The book is mildly recommended for that reason.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Review: Invisible Influence

Invisible Influence is the a book about social pressure, and how peers and friends influence us. Many of the examples in the book are probably familiar to you, such as the experiment in which actors influence a subject into denying the evidence of his own eyes about the length of a line. Similarly, you might have read about how second born children tend to pick non-academic pursuits compared to their first-born siblings:
Elite women’s soccer players tend not to be firstborn children. Of the twenty-three players on America’s 2015 Women’s World Cup team, for example, seventeen have older siblings. (pg. 64)
What's interesting that I did not know was that the most common opening lines in people of my social class is not at all pervasive in American society:
One of the first questions people from middle- or upper-class contexts ask when they meet someone is “What do you do?” Among the middle and upper classes, one’s job is considered a defining element of who you are. People pick their jobs because it is something they are interested in and passionate about, and they see those choices as expressing them as a person. It’s a signal of their identity. But in working-class contexts, “What do you do?” would likely not be one of the first things you’d ask someone. Or if you did, it might offend people. Because, for many working-class individuals, their occupation is a means to an end rather than a signal of identity. It’s what they do to pay the bills. It’s what they do because they need to provide for their families. (pg. 98)
Even more interestingly, there's a segment about how the names of hurricanes influenced baby names:
When we sifted through all the data, we found that hurricanes influenced how people named their children. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, almost 10 percent more babies were born with names beginning with a K sound (compared to the prior year). After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, names that started with a soft “ah” sound increased 7 percent. That’s thousands of babies getting certain names, just because a big hurricane happened to hit. (pg. 154)
Now these numbers are small (10% means in a class of 20, 2 more kids are named Kevin or Kara than usual), but they're also statistically significant examples of people getting influenced. On an individual level, of course, there's no way for you to know what the influence on you was.

By far the most interesting application of this is the impact on how we do performance evaluations:
Unfortunately, many companies and classrooms use a winner-take-all model. The person who makes the most sales this quarter gets promoted. The top student is named valedictorian and speaks at graduation. While this strategy motivates people who have a chance at the top slot, it often demotivates those who feel they have no shot at winning. Someone who has only half as many sales as the leader may think they are so far back that they just give up. Students that are getting Cs or Ds may feel similarly. Getting an A seems impossible, so why keep trying? ... rather than comparing people to everyone else, some organizations give people feedback that compares them to the person just ahead of them. Opower doesn’t compare people to their best-performing neighbor, they tell people where they are in relation to neighbors with similar homes. Just like basketball teams that were down by a point, making each person feel slightly behind increases effort and performance.(pg. 219)
All in all, the book was worth reading, though the interesting insights like the one above were much less frequent. But it's short, so you can skim through the stuff you already know and only slow down to read the stuff you didn't know. Mildly recommended.

Review: Resmed Airfit N30

I bought the newly introduced Resmed Airfit N30 from Lofta because they offered a 30 day money-back guarantee, and because they had a decent discount.

The new nasal-cushion style of mask fits very differently from my tried-and-true Swift FX nasal pillow. Rather than having nacelles that fit into your nose, these are effectively a block of soft silicone material with two cut-outs where your nostrils are. The effect is very comfortable, with no abrasion whatsoever.

The problem with these is that they work great for one night, and then by the second night the wear from the first night means that the cut-outs will loosen up and no longer give great therapy. By the third night, the cushion is completely worthless. If this doesn't happen to you (I might be particularly tough on masks), then these are worth a shot.

Not recommended.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Review: The Names of the Dead

The Names of the Dead is a shallow, made for Hollywood story. The plot is predictable, the characters stereotypical, and even the places and settings feel like Hollywood cut-outs rather than full blown characters. It's major virtue is that it's short, written transparently, and made for easy reading --- an airplane novel.

The story revolves around James Wesley, who starts the book off in jail, only to be freed because his wife was killed in a terrorist attack. That's implausible. Then his CIA operators pick him up so they can hill him, and by himself he attacks and kills them instead, walking away and being picked up by the daughter of another prisoner. Also implausible. Of course it's a woman, and not only does she help him, she (coincidentally) has an open schedule and chauffeurs him all over Spain.

The amount of implausibility in the entire plot was so large, and the attention to detail so little, that I was convinced that the author must have been American. Who else would be so ignorant as to not know the children under 4 travel for free on the Spanish rail system and wouldn't need a ticket? Even more salient, who else would, having gotten a woman who'd helped them out in trouble, would refuse to get all the help they could in rescuing her and instead go into a hostage situation outnumbered just so they could show how macho they were?

Not recommended.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review: The Fifth Risk

I bounced off The Fifth Risk the first time I tried to read it. The opening always made me depressed and sad, since it was obvious to me that the Trump administration was going to do its best to destroy the good parts about American government. The Audible gave away The Coming Storm, and lacking anything to listen to for a bit, I audited it and was about to write a review when I noticed that it was actually an excerpt from the book. So I checked the book from the library once more, and this time finished it, mostly because I stopped reading it as a litany of issues with Trump's takeover of the government and read it as a paen to the unsung heroes of the government. For instance, the Coast Guard research scientist who not only wrote the papers describing how various objects would drift in the ocean, but after spending a night with the search and rescue operations team, designed and engineered a tool for search and rescue team to use during actual rescues, pulling in data automatically, and calculate the search area to focus searches on.
He’d done what he’d done without asking for much for himself. Back in 1984, as a GS-11, he’d been paid less than $30,000 a year. After thirty-five years he’d risen to a GS-14 and been paid a bit more than $100,000. He hadn’t even expected the attention of others, outside his small circle of search-and-rescue people. It was nice that Taiwan’s Coast Guard wrote poems about him. But that sort of thing never happened here, in the United States. The Partnership for Public Service had shocked him when they sent him the note to tell him he had been nominated for a Sammie Award. But that was it—even after the partnership had made a big deal about him in a press release. Art hadn’t heard a peep from the media or the public or anyone else. He half thought his local newspaper might make him Person of the Week. After all, his own daughter had been Person of the Week, when she had worked on a project to clean up the town. It hadn’t happened for him. (Kindle Loc 2664)
We get to see how the politicians and the press try desperately not to give governments any credit, especially in red states:
“We’d have this check,” said Salerno. “We’d blow it up and try to have a picture taken with it. It said UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT in great big letters. That was something that Vilsack wanted—to be right out in front so people knew the federal government had helped them. In the red southern states the mayor sometimes would say, ‘Can you not mention that the government gave this?’” Even when it was saving lives, or preserving communities, the government remained oddly invisible. “It’s just a misunderstanding of the system,” said Salerno. “We don’t teach people what government actually does.”
(Kindle| Location: 1,191)
The sums of money at her disposal were incredible: the little box gave out or guaranteed $30 billion in loans and grants a year. But people who should have known about it hadn’t the first clue what it was up to. “I had this conversation with elected and state officials almost everywhere in the South,” said Salerno. “Them: We hate the government and you suck. Me: My mission alone put $1 billion into your economy this year, so are you sure about that? Me thinking: We are the only reason your shitty state is standing.” (Kindle Loc 1154)
“I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.” This troubled Lillian Salerno, and not just because she’d spent five years of her life inside that little box. It troubled her because it made her wonder about the motives of the people who had taken over the Department of Agriculture. (Kindle Location: 1,215)

You get to learn the details of the food stamps program, and the statistics are incredible, basically a huge percentage (87% or so) are the elderly and children, people who cannot be expected to work for their food. Yet any Republican administration will insist on calling them moochers.

Americans have been sold a bill of goods about the incompetence of government, even though examples from the rest of the world have repeatedly shown that healthcare, however, can be run by the government far more cheaply and effectively at lower cost than our corrupt private system. This book is a good antidote for that sort of thinking, but unfortunately, the kind of people who most need to read it will never get to it. Recommended.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: The Mother Tongue

After reading The Body, I set off to read another Bill Bryson book, and found The Mother Tongue. Having bounced off several other books about the history of the English language, I thought Bryson might be good about it. I was disappointed in the first several pages, where he repeated myths about languages (such as the Eskimos having 50 different words for snow) that are debunked by John McWhorter's great lecture series.

When you're finally past the introductory stuff, Bryson shows that he does have a good command of the language and the history of it, and how diverse it really was:
he related the story of a group of London sailors heading down the River “Tamyse” for Holland who found themselves becalmed in Kent. Seeking food, one of them approached a farmer’s wife and “axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys” but was met with blank looks by the wife who answered that she “coude speke no frenshe.” The sailors had traveled barely fifty miles and yet their language was scarcely recognizable to another speaker of English. In Kent, eggs were eyren and would remain so for at least another fifty years. (pg. 59)
 How quickly the language evolved is quite striking:
When Chaucer died in 1400, people still pronounced the e on the end of words. One hundred years later not only had it become silent, but scholars were evidently unaware that it ever had been pronounced. In short, changes that seem to history to have been almost breathtakingly sudden will often have gone unnoticed by those who lived through them. (pg. 92)
 He also has interesting observations about how strange the English present tense is:
In fact, almost the only form of sentence in which we cannot use the present tense form of drive is, yes, the present tense. When we need to indicate an action going on right now, we must use the participial form driving. We don’t say, “I drive the car now,” but rather “I’m driving the car now.” Not to put too fine a point on it, the labels are largely meaningless. We seldom stop to think about it, but some of the most basic concepts in English are naggingly difficult to define. (pg. 134)
 English, unlike many other languages is largely driven by common usage, rather than committees or official academies. This is by and large a good thing, since as linguists have discovered, our use of language is instinctual, and prescriptive impositions upon English in the past (like many scholars who tried to use Latin as an standard would tell you never to split an infinitive, which of course, is worthless advice) hurt the language more than they help:
Considerations of what makes for good English or bad English are to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. Until the eighteenth century it was correct to say “you was” if you were referring to one person. It sounds odd today, but the logic is impeccable. Was is a singular verb and were a plural one. Why should you take a plural verb when the sense is clearly singular? The answer—surprise, surprise—is that Robert Lowth didn’t like it. “I’m hurrying, are I not?” is hopelessly ungrammatical, but “I’m hurrying, aren’t I?”—merely a contraction of the same words—is perfect English. Many is almost always a plural (as in “Many people were there”), but not when it is followed by a, as in “Many a man was there.” There’s no inherent reason why these things should be so. They are not defensible in terms of grammar. They are because they are. (pg. 143)
 There are lots of language facts about English usage was interesting as far as the cross-pollination between England and the USA:
Other words and expressions that were common in Elizabethan England that died in England were fall as a synonym for autumn, mad for angry, progress as a verb, platter for a large dish, assignment in the sense of a job or task (it survived in England only as a legal expression), deck of cards (the English now say pack), slim in the sense of small (as in slim chance), mean in the sense of unpleasant instead of stingy, trash for rubbish (used by Shakespeare), hog as a synonym for pig, mayhem, magnetic, chore, skillet, ragamuffin, homespun, and the expression I guess. Many of these words have reestablished themselves in England (pg. 171)
Of course, we like to think of English as being popular, but in fact, that is not so:
 Most estimates put the number of native speakers at about 330 million, as compared with 260 million for Spanish, 150 million for Portuguese, and a little over 100 million for French. Of course, sheer numbers mean little. Mandarin Chinese, or Guoyo, spoken by some 750 million people, has twice as many speakers as any other language in the world, but see how far that will get you in Rome or Rochester. No other language than English is spoken as an official language in more countries—forty-four, as against twenty-seven for French and twenty for Spanish—and none is spoken over a wider area of the globe. English is used as an official language in countries with a population of about 1.6 billion, roughly a third of the world total. Of course, nothing like that number of people speak it—in India, for instance, it is spoken by no more than 40 or 50 million people out of a total population of 700 million—but it is still used competently as a second language by perhaps as many as 400 million people globally. (pg. 181)
 The simple fact is that English is not always spoken as widely or as enthusiastically as we might like to think. According to U.S. News & World Report [February 18, 1985], even in Switzerland, one of the most polyglot of nations, no more than 10 percent of the people are capable of writing a simple letter in English. What is certain is that English is the most studied and emulated language in the world, its influence so enormous that it has even affected the syntax of other languages. According to a study by Magnus Ljung of Stockholm University, more than half of all Swedes now make plurals by adding -s, after the English model, rather than by adding -ar, -or, or -er, in the normal Swedish way. (pg. 182)
 All in all, the book was good reading, but not nearly as accurate (especially when Bryson wanders off topics into discussions of non-English languages --- the man clearly has no background in Asian languages!) as I would have liked, which casts credibility on his other books as well. I think John McWhorter or The Language Instinct is a better introduction to the general subject of linguistics. But hey, at least I didn't bounce off it!

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Review: Super Graphic - A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe

Super Graphic is designed by Tim Leong, who was the Director of Digital Design at Wired Magazine. It's not a book about super-heroes --- there's lots of material here about the Archie comics, for instance, Voltron, The Walking Dead, or even Manga, with a great illustration showing how much variety there is in Japanese comic books, as opposed to American ones.

There's even a great panel showing you how to read a comic book (which my friend Scarlet Tang tells me is not as intuitive as I thought it was, having grown up with them). Some of the charts are particularly clever, for instance, the two panels of pixel-art graphics of some well-known superheroes that double as a chart of the popularity of various incarnations of such heroes! The Venn diagrams are also particularly entertaining, and a fun timeline of which characters were dead and for how long. There's even a decision-tree diagram of how The Punisher reacts to someone greeting him in a bar.

The graphs and diagrams are in no particular order, and it's clear that the entire book was designed as a coffee table book. On a 10" tablet, it's not as striking, but if you view it on a 4K screen with plenty of room, the experience is quite unlike any other book I've read this year.

Unique, and certainly recommended, especially at the current sale price of $1.99.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Review: Gut - The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ

Gut is a strange book. The author, Giulia Enders has a fun sense of humor (I guess that's what it takes to be a gastroenterologist):
Japanese researchers fed volunteers luminous substances and X-rayed them while they were doing their business in various positions. They found out two interesting things. First, squatting does indeed lead to a nice, straight intestinal tract, allowing for a direct, easy exit. Second, some people are nice enough to let researchers feed them luminous substances and X-ray them while they have a bowel movement, all in the name of science. Both findings are pretty impressive, I think. (Pg. 19)
The book thereby proceeds in fits and starts, lurching from subject to subject in an unpaced fashion. (How much of it is because Enders is German and this book was translated from German I don't know)

But there are some good tidbits, like:
Of particular interest to those fighting fat is that olive oil also has the potential to help get rid of that spare tire. It blocks an enzyme in fatty tissue—known as fatty acid synthase—that likes to create fat out of spare carbohydrates. And we are not the only ones who benefit from the properties of olive oil—the good bacteria in our gut also appreciate a little pampering. (pg. 53)
Nevertheless, the book is full of practical tips, though because of the translation, some of it seems a little confusing:
One example of bacteria dilution in the home is washing fruit and vegetables. Washing dilutes most soil-dwelling bacteria to such a low concentration that they become harmless to humans. Koreans add a little vinegar to the water to make it slightly acidic and just that bit more uncomfortable for any bacteria. Airing a room is also a dilution technique. If you dilute the bacteria on your plates, cutlery, and cutting board nicely with water, then wipe them over with a kitchen sponge before putting them away, you may as well have licked them clean with your tongue. (Pg. 227)
 Nevertheless, I enjoyed some of the interesting stories, and many of the stories were new to me, such as this one:
A group of South Americans had to learn that through bitter experience. They had the clever idea of taking pregnant women to the South Pole to have their babies. The plan was that the babies born there could stake a claim to any oil future reserves as natives of the region. The babies did not survive. They died soon after birth or on the way back to South America. The South Pole is so cold and germ-free that the infants simply did not get the bacteria they needed to survive. The normal temperatures and bacteria the babies encountered after leaving the Antarctic were enough to kill them. (pg. 240)